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Town Board Gets Earful Over Sandy Response

Frustrated residents blast board on communication.

At Tuesday's meeting, members of New Castle's Town Board gave a recap of the town's response to Hurricane Sandy and said they were open to feedback from improvement. What they heard in response from the public was frustration over the recovery.

In particular, several residents - about two dozen showed up - criticized the town over communication to the public, feeling that the response was inadequate.

“It seemed like there was none," said Dawn Greenberg, adding that for the first four days it seemed like there was "radio silence." 

Steven Camhi said he was surprised that the town board, along with Con Edison still aren't able to communicate effectively, noting that New Castle has been hit by previous storms.

“I don't think it's right that we're in this predicmant now because we had Hurricane Sandy," he said.

Judy McGrath felt that the town should use the Nixle alert system more than it already does.

Town Board members expressed willingness to improve communications.

Councilman Jason Chapin suggested emulating the response system that the Chappaqua school district used for Sandy, which included Superintendent Lyn McKay doing robocall status updates. 

Councilman Robin Stout called for making it easier to get information from residents on social media, such as the Chappaqua Moms Facebook group - members mobilized frequently in the aftermath - to better learn what's happening.

Residents also worried about public safety and the degree of the town's presence.

Greenberg cited an anecdote of custodial staff directing traffic on Route 120 by Roaring Brook Elementary School. Patti Robbins, worried that her neighborhood was not open enough for a firetruck to pass through, and noted that a wire was still down.

At times the meeting became tense, with personal conduct of the board members criticized.

Greenberg told Town Supervisor Carpenter that a neighbor of hers contacted Carpenter on a Friday night and that she responded by calling complainers "spoiled brats."

“And I take offense to that," Greenberg said.

Carpenter responded by saying she did not know who her neighbor was.

“I answered many, many phone calls,” Carpenter said, and that she replied to “everything I could respond to.”

Robin Murphy criticized Councilman John Buckley for going to Lange's, which served as a refuge for people without power, and getting food without interacting with constituents. The remark appeared to hit a nerve with Buckley, who took umbrage. 

“You know, you have no clue what I do," he said. Buckley defended his actions during the aftermath, with bringing coffee to residents and helping with shelter transport as examples.

Murphy also felt that the town board was being too defensive with its reply to the public.

Talk, at times, shifted to infrastructure, public safety presences and the competence of Con Edison.

Police Chief Charles Ferry, responding to a traffic concern about responding to an intersection without a working traffic light, explained that it would be risky to have officers out when the roads are dangerous. Ferry, who was joined by Department of Public Works Commissioner Anthony Vaccaro, defended the town's handling of the crisis. They, along with town board members, noted that their efforts for the recovery are limited by Con Edison and that the town can't restore power.

“Our hands were tied as far as power restoration," Ferry, who noted that town personnel worked in 16-hour shifts and that some didn't go home. "It's not our job. We can't go out there and put power back to your houses.” Ferry also described difficulty with Con Edison, calling their municipal calls "a shouting match.”

Carpenter said that Con Edison "was just simply not prepared and not organized enough to even give us information about where the crews would be and what they were doing.”

“We don't have a local electrical restoration department," said Stout. "That's not what we do."

A problem with the recovery pace, it was explained by the town's side, is that the town is hampered in clearing trees when they are downed wires because Con Edison is relied on to assess whether or not the wires are still live.

There was also talk at the meeting for more radical infrastructure changes, including clearing of trees and power line burial.

Ralph Byers called for more aggressive tree removal near power lines, arguing that they pose a threat to the stability of keeping power.

“Just take them down," he said. Byers, recalling history, noted that in the town's agrarian past, land was once largely cleared of trees.

Carpenter was receptive to changing the town's tree ordinance with concern to pruning. She also felt that some types of trees are not appropriate for being close to power lines and roadways.

Judy McGrath called for consideration of power line burial.

While board members did not explicitly rule out burying lines, it was noted that, in the recent past during early stages of the Chappaqua hamlet plan for the business district, that the town got a 7-figure price quote for doing so downtown.

The views of the public were not unanimous at the meeting, however.

Phyillis Kirshner called for people to take personal responsbility for examining trees, and said she resented the fact that people were attacking the board.

“I think we have a responsibility. We can't blame everything on Con Ed.”

Victoria Alzapiedi hoped that there would be a balance between taking trees down and considering the ecological positives of trees.

Lori November 15, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Ms Carpenter's arrogant defensiveness following her failure to handle this crisis was to be expected. Many of us wrote numerous emails and received no response. I refused to attend the meeting last night because I am sick of Carpenter's arrogance and failure to take responsibility, which she showcased yet again last night. That she purportedly referred to people without power as spoiled brats is in keeping with how she has handled this crisis. We have a severely disabled person in our home, and yet when our dead end street asked for the downed trees blocking the road to be removed, so first responders could get through, Carpenter couldn't be bothered. When the house two doors down almost burned to the ground, she couldn't be bothered. Carpenter's background at Westchester Land Trust simply did not give her the experience to deal with a crisis or the public. Convincing wealthy people to donate the development rights to their property in exchange for tax benefits can move at a snails's pace. Her inability to act quickly, decisively, and with the common person, is apparently not within her skill set. By contrast, Mr Buckley, a board member, literally went door-to door checking on people during the crisis, and his defensiveness during the meeting was justified, as he was out before seven am and after 8 pm checking on residents at risk. He demonstrated compassion and openness
Lori November 15, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Imagine if he was in charge on 9/11?
Geoff November 15, 2012 at 02:14 PM
I feel that the town board and town officials did the best that they could under very difficult circumstances. As far as police officers directing traffic, I would not be too quick to dismiss the concern that police could be at risk trying to direct traffic at night when road conditions are dangerous. At the same time, non-working traffic lights also present serious risks. I personally observed someone going past a temporary STOP sign that the police placed at Seven Bridges and 133; my guess is that they probably were not expecting it and didn't see it. I think one solution would be for the town to have back-up battery or some other form of back-up power for traffic lights. We don't have a lot of them in town, and this can't be that expensive to do.
Lori November 15, 2012 at 02:22 PM
They may have done the best THEY could, but it was certainly not the best that could be done. Sometimes a particular individual's best is not good enough. That a better job could have, and should have, been done, is indisputable. A chimpanzee can work as hard as it possibly can, but it can never perform brain surgery. Its about competence to do the job, and Ms. Carpenter's incompetence was patent in this case. She needs to resign before more damage is done.
Dr.SusanRubin November 15, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Lots of whining in our town. Yes it was inconvenient to have trees down and power out for 2 weeks. No lives were lost. Most folks were eventually able to get out of their homes. No homes were destroyed beyond repair. This is what our future looks like, climate change is real and its here to stay. These storms and other "events" are increasing in frequency and intensity. Power crews came from across the country. We were lucky, let's count our blessings. Other parts of the world including parts of NYC and NJ have experienced total destruction and now have climate refugees. Moving forward, instead of blaming people and ConEd, a focus on greater self reliance, and community resilience would be a better use of our time. By the way, resilience is not about generators and tree trimming! There are many things we can do to prepare our homes and our families for long outages and lengthy periods where gas may not be flowing so freely. Let's use Irene, Sandy and other storms to help improve our learning curve.
Patty K November 15, 2012 at 02:24 PM
Geoff- Police understand that there is "some" risk and danger in their chosen profession. We pay our Police very well in comparison to most of the country. They have very little danger and risk working in our community. There are no violent crimes, shootings, riots, etc. They generally deal with the occasional house burglary, car theft, fender bender, and many underage drinking parties. At the time of a true crisis such was Sandy it is not too much to expect that they direct traffic. This was most definitely done in many other towns that lost power to their traffic lights. I have friends in Rye, Bedford, and Scarsdale - in each case they had either police at the intersection or set up make shift 4 way stop signs. In New Castle we had NOTHING! Stop making excuses for incompetence!
Patty K November 15, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Dr Rubin - enough of your touchy feely nonsense. You are correct - it could have been worse. You are correct - others suffer far worse than us. That does not excuse incompetence, poor preparation, and poor execution. Had some driver slammed into anther car at one of these unattended intersections and had someone been terribly hurt or killed - then what? You point out last years Hurricane Irene as an example of improving our learning curve. That’s a good point. Irene was over a year ago as was the October snowstorm of 2011. Both storms we lost power for multiple days. Both storms we had poor response and communication from our elected officials and from Con Ed. Both storms the police left dark traffic lights unattended. So I ask you - what did we learn from last years storms? What improvements did we implement? What changes to our infrastructure and communication did our Town Board adopt? The answer to all these questions is none. No change , no improvement. How can you make excuses for such incompetence?
Lori November 15, 2012 at 02:53 PM
PTP -- I agree with you. Even those of us who try to be resilient (whatever that means) -- green house, insulation, grow ur own food, etc, cannot be independent of community. That is not the issue here. How can we expect transformative solutions to address global warming, when our leaders can't even manage the stuff they understand! Solar is still grid dependent, and the most promising long term storage solutions, like the liquid battery being worked on at MIT, is a grid solution. There is simply no off the grid solution, and the most promising solutions are large scale. Any theory that relies on a return to an independent homestead model is either not workable, or would occur only in a post apocalyptic world that appears to be forthcoming, but is not yet here. So lets work with what we have, and work toward the future. Your right, we're past peak oil, and the end is near. But right now we can't get anything done on that front because the idiots can't manage to think their way out of a paper bag.
R November 15, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Spoiled brats is right.
Lori November 15, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Ahh - the voice of mediocrity speaks again! No wonder the nation has fallen behind in everything!
Patty K November 15, 2012 at 03:17 PM
To R - perhaps it will be you who is driving thru an intersection with a traffic light out. And perhaps it will be you who gets slammed into by an on coming car. Perhaps it will be you (or a loved one) that gets injured or worse because our police couldnt/wouldnt do anything at these intersections. Perhaps then you will stop calling people spoiled brats. Perhaps it will be you who has a disabled or elderly person at home and can not get out because a down tree sits for days. Perhaps it will be you who has a live and sparking wire on your house or driveway and no one will respond. Perhaps it will be you who has invested everything in a small business in town and lack of power has ruined your ability to make loan payments and earn a living. Lets see then who you will call a spoiled brat.
R November 15, 2012 at 03:34 PM
To P T P and others; instead of your complaining and crying, I strongly suggest that you prove how much better you can run a local government and/or perform the duties of a police officer. Run for office or leave your comfy homes and take up a position as a civil servant....but stop critiquing others and their jobs until you have taken up their jobs. And yes, residents of Chappaqua and New Castle are spoiled brats.
Lori November 15, 2012 at 04:01 PM
R, you have no idea what anyone who posts on here does for a living or with their lives. But stooping to personal attacks on people posting here, with absolutely no facts to support anything you speculate about them, and when you have no idea to whom you are speaking, is a last resort when the merits of your point are lost. I have no idea who you are, what you do, and we all have refrained from speculating about your motivation. What is clear is that you have unapologetically defended incompetence and mediocrity. Any speculation as to why you feel the need to do so exceeds the bounds of civil discourse, and falls into the trenches of personal attack.
Jen November 15, 2012 at 04:31 PM
Wow, OK, everyone breathe. No one is a spoiled brat for feeling distressed by the very real dangers that faced our community. It wasn't just discomfort, there were real safety issues--traffic issues, homes too cold for safety, downed trees and wires for weeks, no phone service, which is dangerous for an extended time, etc. All of that is not the town's fault, but I really cannot stand hearing, "That's not our job." That's really beside the point. As elected officials (and not all of us are going to run for office, but those who are in elected office DID run for those offices, and they are the jobs held by THOSE individuals), taking a leadership role, and making sure your community feels supported and heard IS for sure in the job description. It becomes the police department's problem, and the fire department, when our electric lines are down, and trees are not cleared for first responders. And if Con Ed is standing in your way, or handling it irresponsibly, get vocal, and let us know you have our backs. THAT is your job. Be visible, not invisible. I've had to deal with the department of public works, and I know personally how easily the words, "It's not our job," get spoken in New Castle.
Jen November 15, 2012 at 04:32 PM
Just a bit more--I ran out of space!! Come out and show us you are trying your best to tackle these VERY SERIOUS problems, tell us what you are doing. And how will you plan for the next disaster? I know how I"ll plan, but how will you plan? And, make suggestions to us about how to plan. That might help, too. Get together with other town supervisors and managers and discuss the future.
Jen November 15, 2012 at 04:35 PM
BTW, I sent two emails and left one voice message during the weeks I was out of power for our town supervisor, asking for updates, and NEVER was contacted by her office. That was outrageous. At my job, I'd be fired for not returning phone messages.
Jeffrey S. Chiara November 15, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Chapp Dad, You are most certainly correct. Here in Putnam they had the D.P.W. put up Stop Signs at intersections were traffic lights were out for days. Can't see why the General Foreman of Highway or your Commissioner of D.P.W ,or Deputy Commissioner of D.P.W. did not think of that or for that Matter your Chief of Police. Aren't they being paid close to if not 6 figured salaries because they are suppose to know this stuff. Do you know how many D.P.W. ( Highway Dept.) workers there actually are?
Nora Mackenzie November 15, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Did anyone address the issue of Con Ed's refusal of our Fire Department's help? Was anyone from Con Ed at the meeting?
Jeffrey S. Chiara November 15, 2012 at 07:34 PM
It is funny watching the meeting and hearing some of the board members saying this is the first we are hearing about things about certain things. when in the past they have been told about certain things. Even funnier when One board member says that the D.P.W. worker may not have know the rules, when in fact he has been working there for almost 20 years.....Kind of hard not to know the rules when you are there that long......Like when Susan Carpenter says that the workers are not there to make money when in fact one employee in fact pocketed money in the past that was given to him. That was even brought to the Town Board Members attention as well as your Current Town Administrator.
s November 15, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Is it whining or is advocating for ourselves? I went to the meeting on Tuesday night and I heard frustration, not whining. The board was prepared to hear some negative feedback and much of it was justified. This storm presented a crisis to our entire community and changes need to be made. While I did not lost power (this time), I needed to drive out of New Castle to help my elderly parents who had lost power in their home. Driving on 120 a week after the storm was treacherous. Tree trimming needs to be on the table; that's part of preparing for the next storm.
Tom Auchterlonie (Editor) November 15, 2012 at 09:16 PM
I think in fairness to the town they were making a good-faith effort in the recovery, but officials have acknowledged that there could have been more communication with the public. Also, according to the town, a significant factor for the long duration of outages was attributable to the fact that the town only have one cut and clear crew from Con Edison, while the town requested more. Susan Carpenter gave a list of changes she wants to see for future emergencies, which can be found here: http://patch.com/A-z6Y5 The board is also looking for the public's feedback on what to change.
Tom Auchterlonie (Editor) November 15, 2012 at 09:18 PM
Also, the town has posted several links since the meeting with info that residents can use for recovery, including debris pick up and more info on tree removal: http://mynewcastle.org/index.php/chappaqua-news/latest-news/399-storm-cleanup-information http://mynewcastle.org/index.php/chappaqua-news/latest-news/402-tree-removal-permit-application-now-available-here
Chapp Dad November 15, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Tom - good of you to try to diffuse and defend the situation but Ms Carpenter and the board need to explain why when many of these same issues arose during last years storms (and beyond) they had no plan or strategy a year later. Last year we experienced similar poor communication, poor Con Ed response, little or no explanations from police and town officials, and traffic lights that went out. Of course this was a more serious storm with more damage but what is the explanation that our elected town officials ,police, and DPW were no better prepared. I'm still waiting for the answer to why we has no police or temporary stop signs or anything at dangerous intersections where traffic lights went out. Didn't any of our town board drive thru one and think " this is dangerous, there will be an accident here, I should get a cop over here". It happened a year ago and it happened again!
Tom Auchterlonie (Editor) November 15, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Hi Chapp Dad, I think asking about Irene vs. Sandy preparation is a valid question, although I can't speak the specifics of your questions beyond that because I'm not aware the answers. As Susan mentioned at the meeting, the town is looking to implement changes for the future to avoid whatever pitfalls they encountered, while board members want residents to share ideas for how to improve.
Pam November 16, 2012 at 11:47 AM
I agree with Lori. There is no doubt change is needed. We have the ability, even in the face of a natural disaster... to do BETTER.
Michele November 16, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Two hurricanes and 2 snowstorms down. (Not looking forward to next fall.) Let's finally hope that everyone will learn from these experiences because there will be more on the horizon. Get prepared!!!
MK Bob November 18, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Chapp Dad, you're quite right. We don't need pablum. We need actions. We need to be prepared for the next one and the one after and the one after that. We won't get there by "reviewing", "revisiting", "expanding" and "partnering" (the actions Susan Carpenter wants, according to Tom's story). Apparently, we don't have community leaders that know what changes to make. I can understand. We've always run our community as a little bucolic slice of suburbia and relied completely on others to take care of our needs. But, Mother Nature has changed the playing field. We need to regain control of our infrastructure and mobilize our police, fire, dpw and volunteer community members to quickly get our town up and running as effectively and safely as possible when these emergencies strike. There's no excuse for intersections that are unmanned and trees blocking roads because we're waiting for ConEd to tell us if a wire is live. We're capable of handling these issues ourselves when no one else will help. We need organization, training and tools - and we need to start now.
Jen November 19, 2012 at 10:06 PM
I really think it would be great if Susan Carpenter put out an email via Nixle to, after Sandy and the subsequent town meeting, outline for us what the towns future preparations would be when they are told a massive storm is coming. Also, what specific problems came up this time, and how they would tackle them the next time. How would they address a ton of downed trees and lines, non-functional traffic lights, advise to residents about how to avoid house fires, centers for residents for cell service, internet, cable, showers, etc., generator maintenance or purchase information, updates on town communications with utility companies, etc. I'd like to know we've created a formula out of this recent disaster.
MyFairShare November 26, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Seriously Dr Rubin. We have elected officials that *Didn't do their job*. Yes, I'm glad I didnt die in the storm or get injured - the fact remains people who work for the tax payers of this town - did and continue to do their jobs POORLY. You're holistic approach to crisis management might benefit from some clear eyed sober objectivity.
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